Newsroom's Melanie Reid says the police investigation "feels like a punishment for revealing the state's misuse of power". Photo: Phill Prendeville

Newsroom is slapped with a full $13,000 order for costs, and is now subject to a police inquiry, over a video story that changed a worrying Oranga Tamariki practice

Police have opened a criminal investigation into Newsroom over a documentary published at the end of last year revealing a ‘reverse uplift’ of children by Oranga Tamariki staff.

The video story, by Newsroom Investigates editor Melanie Reid, was forced off this website by High Court order at the urging of the Solicitor-General for allegedly containing information that could identify the children involved in the case. Newsroom disputed that claim and, in initial negotiations with Crown Law, amended the video to meet most of its listed concerns. However its lawyers then went, without notice, to the High Court and obtained the interim injunction order preventing its further publication.

Ironically, the case highlighted in the video led directly to Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis seeking a ‘please explain‘ from the agency and then directing Oranga Tamariki to stop the new policy of ‘reverse uplifts’ under which Māori children around the country who had been put in permanent care were being summarily removed and taken, in this case, to unknown and distant whānau. A Māori advisory panel was appointed from outside the ministry and the chief executive of OT, Grainne Moss, later resigned.

There have now been two further developments:

Justice Francis Cooke in the High Court at Wellington has ordered Newsroom to pay the full $13,000 in costs sought by the Crown over the injunction action. He did not accept the matter was of sufficient public interest to warrant a reduction or waiving of costs – and claimed Newsroom had not been reasonable in dealings with the Solicitor-General, despite this website having made the changes initially sought. (At the time, in an email to Newsroom, the Solicitor-General Una Jagose had initially thanked this site for our ‘constructive’ response.)

It now turns out Crown Law had, even while promising to come back to Newsroom with further views on the changes made to the video, simultaneously referred the video story to the police for investigation under a supposed breach of the Family Court Act over the identification of the children. 

Nearly six months on, a detective inspector from the criminal investigations branch in the region that the ‘reverse uplift’ case originated has written to Newsroom requesting an on-record interview, with a caution that whatever is said could be used in evidence in a prosecution.  

The sanctions in the Family Court Act for a breach of Section11B involving identification of children are a maximum of three months imprisonment, or a $2000 fine for an individual or $10,000 for an organisation.

The double act by Crown Law in pursuing Newsroom over the video story has little precedent. It is rare for an editor in New Zealand to be threatened with prosecution personally under the criminal law for publishing information, particularly on matters of evident public interest. Newsroom does not accept the video content breached the Family Court Act.

The costs ruling and the separate police investigation have been criticised by Reid, whose powerful earlier video documentary on an Oranga Tamariki uplift in Hawkes Bay also changed the ministry’s practices, led to five inquiries and just 10 days ago was hailed by the Waitangi Tribunal in a searing decision.

Newsroom still believes the second video did not identify the children involved, and that it acted responsibly in discussions with Crown Law. There was no complaint to Newsroom from the whānau or others involved in the story that the children’s identities had been made known. 

Reid said: “With all due respect, we just can’t agree with the claims by Crown Law that this video identified those children. First it was the ‘without notice’ application to the High Court to have our story removed, then going after Newsroom for $13,000, and now calling in the police to take a case against us. It all just feels like a punishment of the media for revealing the state’s misuse of power. It is how whānau feel when the state moves against them and their children. 

“This video highlighted a policy that was wrong and damaging – which was cancelled by the minister after viewing it – and this is how the system carries on afterwards.”

Newsroom’s work in examining injustices and investigating abuse of power is supported by many readers who make donations via the Press Patron platform. If you want to support us in this ongoing work, you are welcome to make a contribution here or you can subscribe to Newsroom Pro here.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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